There’s no doubt that luck plays a role in our success (and failure). To succeed, you have to be in the right place at the right time. As much as we’d like to think that we have full control over that, we don’t. For example, we cannot control where we’re born, the people we meet, or the physical and psychological environments that we are raised in. Therefore, obviously, luck is involved in achieving your goals.
That being said, let’s also not delude ourselves into thinking that luck is the only factor or the deciding factor when it comes to success. A lot of times we’ll look at others, such as athletes, and we will attribute their success to ‘natural ability.’ Or we’ll look at successful entrepreneurs and call them successful only because they came from a wealthy family and had parents who could fund their efforts. Or we’ll look at the Einsteins and the Picassos of the world and say they were gifted. I’m sure there is some degree of truth to that, however, there are many people who are 6’10” who do not make it to the NBA, many people who find a way to turn $10,000 in debt into $10 million of profit, and many who have insanely high IQs yet accomplish nothing noteworthy in their lives.
So what is it? Why are some disadvantaged people so successful while some advantaged people are unsuccessful?
The Success Formula
According to researcher Angela Duckworth, one of the main predictors of success is grit, a combination of passion and perseverance for long-term goals. This is what distinguishes the high-achievers from the rest. In her book, Grit, Duckworth shares two formulas that describe the relationship between grit and success.
Formula 1: Talent x Effort = Skill
Talent generally is used to sum up a person’s capabilities. However, with the way Duckworth uses it, it means the rate at which a person improves in skill. In other words, if person A puts in the same amount of time and energy as person B to learn something, but person A learns it better, it can be said that person A is more talented. They can more easily pick up on a skill. To a large extent, talent is what we cannot control.
To convert a raw talent into skill, you need to nurture that talent. The way you nurture it is through effort and practice. Intuitively, this makes sense.
Formula 2: Skill x Effort = Achievement
When you develop a skill, what determines whether or not you will be successful and achieve something is also effort. Intuitively, this also makes sense. Think of it this way– to become a skilled soccer player, I need to put in effort. Once I become a skilled soccer player, what determines how successful I will be is also effort. The more effort I invest, the more successful I will be.
Combining the formulas: (Talent x Effort) x Effort = Achievement
One thing you notice when you combine the formulas is that effort counts twice. According to Duckworth, effort matters twice as much as talent or skill when it comes to achieving your goals.
Grit and Effort
So what’s the relationship between effort and grit? Are they synonymous? Simply put, grit is something that allows you to put in continued effort. When you’re passionate about something and are able to persevere through challenges, you will be able to put in continued effort. Grit is all about long-term. It’s not about sprinting, but about having stamina. Gritty people can endure and persist during both the high and low moments.
The Missing Variable
In Duckworth’s equations, there is one missing component that I think is undeniable – opportunity. This is what I was referring to as ‘luck’ or being in the right place at the right time. I do not think you can omit it from the equation. You can put in as much effort as you want or be the most skilled person in the universe, but if you’re not placed in the right circumstances, you may not succeed. Unfortunately, you cannot control what you cannot control. You may never be given the right opportunity. However, given that, I will say three things:
- If you continue to persist and put in effort, chances are that you will be able to create your own opportunities.
- The more effort you put in, the less relevant opportunity will be as a factor in determining your success. Sure, you might not be the next Jeff Bezos, but you can still be pretty darn successful.
- If you succumb to the idea that you were just dealt a bad hand or are an unlucky person, then you will certainly NOT succeed.
I want to go a bit deeper into #3 which targets your mindset. If you’re of the mindset that intelligence and ability are fixed and that you were just dealt a bad hand, you’re likely adopting what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset.” In her book, Mindset, Dweck states that those with a fixed mindset believe that things like intelligence, personality, and other traits are fixed. As a result, their motivation is always about proving themselves. As Dweck says in her book, “If you only have a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics” (p. 6).
Unfortunately, when you have a fixed mindset, you’re likely to either (a) be successful but unhappy because you don’t feel successful, or (b) be unsuccessful and unhappy. The problem is that you’re constantly seeking to “one-up” yourself or someone else to prove your worth, or you succumb to the mindset of ‘why bother’ because it’s not like you can do anything anyways, right? Might as well just accept your fate.
Dweck states that you should instead try to develop what she calls a “growth mindset” which focuses more on the idea that basic qualities (such as intelligence) can be developed through effort, approach, and help from others. It focuses more on learning and getting better and less on the fact that you can’t control everything. Those with a growth mindset don’t believe that everyone can be Einstein or Picasso, but they believe that one’s true potential or peak is unknowable and not already decided for them. Therefore, their focus is on continuing to grow and develop to get better because maybe they can’t be a Picasso, but they can certainly be better than what they are now. You could argue that those with the growth mindset are also trying to “one-up” themselves, but the difference is the mindset.
Fixed mindset individuals are focused on proving themselves (more focused on self-worth and self-esteem) whereas growth mindset individuals are just focused on growth and development. They’re focused on growing for the sake of growing and are more intrinsically motivated. When you are intrinsically motivated, you’re more likely to do something even if there is no guaranteed tangible positive outcomes, and even when things start to get tough.
Interestingly, in her Ted talk, Duckworth states that the one thing you can do to increase grit is to adopt a growth mindset.
You can’t control the hand you’ve been dealt and nor can you control opportunity, to a large extent. Honestly, you can’t even control the outcome to a large extent. You can study hard for an exam, but you still might get a bad grade. You might work hard and still have an unhappy boss. You can’t control it, and it sucks. However, because you can’t control it, you can do just two things:
- Worry about it and be unhappy
- Stop worrying about it and focus on what you can control.
Here’s what you can control — effort and mindset. Fortunately, effort and mindset happen to be two of the more powerful variables when it comes to predicting success. Have a growth mindset, put in effort, and focus on the process instead of the outcome. Do all that and you’re off to a pretty good start.